A film review by Craig J. Koban September 20, 2013

THE FAMILY jjj
 

2013, R, 111 mins.

 

Robert De Niro as Fred Blake / Giovanni Manzoni  /  Michelle Pfeiffer as Maggie Blake  /  Tommy Lee Jones  /  Dianna Agron as Bella Blake  /  John D'Leo as Warren Blake  /  Vincent Pastore as Fat Willy  /  Joseph Perrino as Joey  /  Paul Borghese as Albert  /  Jimmy Palumbo as DiCicco  /  Kresh Novakovic as Vincenze

 

Directed by Luc Besson  /  Written by Besson and Michael Caleo

Luc Besson has spent an awful lot of time writing and producing action films as of late (the TAKEN and THE TRANSPORTER franchises come immediately to mind), so it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to THE FAMILY, a surprisingly sly, impeccably cast, well performed, and mostly enjoyable action comedy from the French director.  The premise of the film is kind of appealing, in an off-kilter kind of way: A former Mafioso and his family enter the Witness Protection Program and are secretly displaced to – ahem! – Normandy, France, where all sorts of culture clashes ensue.   

As a fish-of-of-water comedy (based on the novel MALAVITA by Tonino Benacquista), THE FAMILY hits perfunctory, but frequently amusing beats.  However, its real coup de grace is that it has ample fun at the expense of star Robert De Niro’s resume.  It winks – in both subtle and remarkably broad ways – at the star’s past mob-centric roles and provides the actor with his juiciest and funniest comedic role since 1999’s ANALYZE THIS (yet another comedy that cheekily referenced De Niro’s lauded career playing wiseguys).  It could be said that De Niro has certainly given some stiff and uninspired paycheck grabbing performances in comedies as of late, but in THE FAMILY he seems looser and less constrained by the material.  That, and he gets to work off of a spirited and well-assembled cast that includes multiple Oscar winners and nominees.  Even when the writing here takes some jarring tonal shifts and becomes a bit muddled and uneven as it progresses, we are nonetheless left with very inspired actors that bring their A-game with a relishing aplomb.  

In actuality, De Niro is playing a character that just as easily could have occupied any other serious minded mob film.  In THE FAMILY he plays Giovanni Manzoni, a former tough-as-nails, ruthless, but fair (in his mind) mob boss that snitched on his superiors and now finds himself and his family in the Witness Protection Program, overseen by the unflappable and by-the-books Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).  The agent decides that the best course of action is to send the family all the way overseas to France, where they will hopefully not attract too much undo attention to themselves.  The Manzoni family changes their names (they are now the Blakes) and Giovanni (now known as Fred) decides to spend his time writing his memoirs, but his cover within a cover is that he’s a history author working on a WWII novel. 

 

 

The rest of Giovanni’s clan seems to adjust – as only they know how – to their new foreign surroundings.  His wife Maggie (a wonderfully sassy Michelle Pfeiffer) seems somewhat dejected in her new country, whereas the kids, Bella (Dianna Argon) and Warren (John D’Leo) try to deal with everyday social and peer pressure at their new school, but in ways that only a mob boss’ kids know how (she manages to make use of a tennis racket in ways not appropriate to deal with the sexual advances of a few ogling school boys).  Giovanni himself is not beneath going back to his roots, so to speak, when it comes to dealing with ill mannered people that he feels have disrespected him.  In one hysterical and macabre sequence, he grabs a baseball bat to deal with a rather repugnant plumber, which will have all cinemaphiles grinning at the reference to his role of Al Capone in THE UNTOUCHABLES.  Unavoidably, though, Giovanni’s past does come back to haunt him and his family, as old crime bosses back home discover his location and send in a squad of hitmen to whack them all. 

I liked the whole tableau that THE FAMILY rests on; It’s kind of intriguing – initially at least – to see the Blakes try as they may to acclimatize themselves to Normandy life, and the film displays great merriment in dealing with their attempts to go straight.  To be fair, Besson also sets his satiric crosshairs not only at mob film genre staples, but also on French customs and manners, which gives the film a balanced approach to the laughs and its intended targets.  I also appreciated how THE FAMILY never once shies away from De Niro’s legendary and iconic catalogue of great gangster films.  No more is this driven home then when Giovanni agrees to attend a local film festival screening/debate of Vincente Minnelli’s SOME CAME RUNNING.  When he arrives the audience is told that the print to the Frank Sinatra starring film was not sent properly and that…yes…Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS arrived by mistake.  Perhaps too on the nose?  Yup.  Yet, it makes for the film’s best comedic setup and laugh. 

The performances by the cast are perhaps the biggest breath of fresh air in the production.  De Niro can clearly play these roles in his proverbial sleep, but his natural and wonderfully unforced chemistry with Michelle Pfeiffer helps elevate his work beyond the phoned-in status.  Pfeiffer is also no stranger to mob roles (remember MARRIED TO THE MOB way back when?), and she has an impeccable knack here for black comedy and lends a subversive edge to her gangster wife role that we have not seen from the ageless beauty in an awfully long time.  Tommy Lee Jones brings is trademark level-headed and stoic bravado to his role and it’s a real treat to see heavyweight acting talents like him and De Niro share scenes together.  Even the work by Diana Agron and John D’Leo is thanklessly strong.  D’Leo has a razor sharp delivery playing his adolescent hustler, and the unendingly photogenic Agron displays an unhealthy predilection towards violence as Bella...even when she struggles with love and chastity.  The daughter role here is far better written and realized than expected.

THE FAMILY does take a few regrettable missteps along the way, like the fact that there are times when Besson can’t seem to decide whether or not to hone in on the film’s farcical undertones or the blood curdling action or the dramatic pathos of the characters (a subplot involving Bella and her attraction to a Math tutor seems lifted from a whole other film altogether).  The finale of the film, which definitely amps up the action to borderline cartoony levels, is both exhilarating and a bit too drawn out for its own good.  Besson still has a great faculty, in all fairness, to harness stylish and graceful action sequences, but perhaps is not known for refined and well articulated comedy.  This shows at times in THE FAMILY, which probably would have been that much better if it squarely centered on being an all-out farce, but instead seems to have a genuine personality disorder.   

Still, there’s sublime pleasure in witnessing a seasoned and well-oiled De Niro and Pfeiffer occupying the screen together and THE FAMILY enjoys taking an overly familiar setup and injects some deliciously pointed and amusingly obvious odes to the classic De Niro genre films of old…and it never holds back.  Is this a bravura genre satire?  Forget about it!  Alas, does THE FAMILY get the intended job done?  Absolutely.  

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